Comparing Roles and Responsibilities: Physician Assistant vs Nurse Practitioner

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PA vs NP: Physician assistant vs Nurse Practitioner


In today’s rapidly changing healthcare landscape, there is an increased need for skilled and knowledgeable healthcare providers . As the population ages and healthcare needs evolve, two professions have emerged as some of the key players in the healthcare system: Physician Assistant (PA) vs Nurse Practitioners (NP).

Both Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants are examples of enhanced Advanced Practice Providers (APPs) who could see patients on their own or in tandem with doctors. They may prescribe medication, arrange diagnostic tests, and interpret the results in addition to being able to diagnose and treat both acute and chronic illnesses. However, there are some differences between the roles and responsibilities of the two professions.

In this article, we delve into the similarities and differences between these two professions, discussing educational requirements, scope of practice, collaborative relationships, areas of concentration, work settings, salary, and job outlook.

Educational and Other Requirements

While both PAs and NPs typically are required to complete post-baccalaureate study, there are differences in the educational focus and the types of degrees they earn.


Physician Assistants

A PA’s education is generally similar to that of a medical student—both use a disease-centered curriculum model. PAs typically complete a master’s degree program in physician assistant studies, which takes approximately 2-3 years to complete. The program includes classroom instruction, laboratory work, and clinical rotations in various medical specialties. (Rotation hours tend to be greater for PAs than for NPs.) Prior to entering a PA program, candidates usually have a bachelor’s degree and relevant healthcare experience.

Nurse Practitioners

An NP’s education is typically that of an Advanced Practice Provider role; it follows a patient-centered model. NPs complete a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). DPN programs tend to focus more on research. Master’s programs typically take 2-3 years while doctoral programs taking 3-4 years to complete. Before enrolling in an NP program, candidates need a bachelor’s degree in nursing; many schools also require candidates to have some experience as a registered nurse. Both MSN and DNP programs include classroom instruction, laboratory work, and clinical rotations in various medical specialties.

Certification and Licensure

Physician Assistants

All states require PAs to be licensed by the state in which they work. To pursue licensure, candidates typically need to obtain certification through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Certification involves passing the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE).

Nurse Practitioners

The majority of states require NPs to be licensed. For many states, this entails obtaining national certification through one of several nursing certification organizations, depending on their specialty. Such organizations include the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB), the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB). Other licensure requirements generally include completing an approved educational program and maintaining continuing education requirements.


Both PAs and NPs may pursue additional education or certifications in a variety of areas of practice. Such education, also known as postgraduate or fellowship programs, allows PAs and NPs to focus on specific patient populations or medical specialties. For example, PAs might pursue certification in emergency medicine, cardiology, or dermatology. Opportunities for NPs include jobs such as Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP), and Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP).

These additional certifications typically require completion of specific courses and clinical experiences as well as passing a certification exam. Pursuing such education generally takes anywhere from several months to a few years. Additionally, PAs and NPs may need to meet continuing education requirements to maintain their certification.

Scope of Practice

PAs and NPs have a similar scope of practice, providing primary and specialty care to patients of all ages. However, there are some differences with regard to specific responsibilities, autonomy, and focus.

NP vs PA infographic

Job Responsibilities and Limitations

There is a lot of overlap between the job responsibilities for each profession. Both PAs and NPs typically do the following:

  • Take medical histories
  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests
  • Diagnose illnesses
  • Develop treatment plans
  • Monitor and document a patient’s progress
  • Prescribe medication
  • Counsel patients on preventive care
  • Conduct research

However, some responsibilities are unique to each profession, and each has its own limitations.

Physician Assistants

One of main differences between the scope of practice of PAs versus NPs is that PAs may perform surgery, while NPs may not. PAs also tend to concentrate in medical fields such as dermatology or cardiology rather than focusing on specific populations as NPs generally do.

PAs are generally required to work with a supervising physician. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the physician always needs to present but could require that a PA collaborates with the supervising physician. The level of supervision required may vary by state and the specific practice setting.

Nurse Practitioners

As mentioned previously, NPs may not perform surgery. In addition, nurse practitioners typically care for a certain population of people. For instance, NPs may work in adult and geriatric health, pediatric health, or psychiatric and mental health.

NPs have a more autonomous practice than PAs and may practice independently in many states without physician supervision. However, in some states, NPs may be required to have a collaborative agreement with a physician.

Differences in Prescribing Authority

While both PAs and NPs may prescribe medications in all U.S. states and the District of Columbia, their level of independence and specific prescribing limitations may vary by state.

PAs are typically required to have some level of collaboration with a supervising physician in order to prescribe medication . Although in past years some states had restrictions on PAs’ authority to prescribe controlled substances, currently all states allow it.

NPs generally have more autonomy in their prescribing authority, with some states granting full practice authority. Others restrict NPs ability to prescribe controlled medications. States also have different stipulations with regard to education and certification. Some require NPs to have completed a specific number of hours, and or be certified to prescribe.

Differences in Focus

An important distinction between PAs and NPs is the model that underlies their practice. PAs follow the physician model, while NPs follow the nursing model.

The medical model, which is also used by physicians, is disease-centered, with an emphasis on the biological and pathological aspects of medical diagnosis and treatment. PAs tend to focus on a single symptom or disease and seeking out the root of the disease process. While the medical model originally did not take in account the ramifications of treatment on a patient as a whole, that has changed: the role of PAs now includes social, psychological, and behavioral elements.

The nursing model, on the other hand, is based on nursing theory, and focuses more on the whole individual. As NPs work with patients, they consider how the treatment might affect the individual: What kinds of support systems does the patient have? How could treatment affect the patient’s ability to remain independent? NPs also tend to focus more on health promotion and disease prevention, although this distinction has become more blurred over time.

Areas of Concentration and Work Settings

As mentioned previously, both PAs and NPs may enhance their practice by concentrating in a particular medical area or focusing on a specific population. Here are some examples of concentrations for both PAs and NPs.

Physician Assistants

PAs’ medical education provides them with a foundation in a wide range of specialty areas of medicine. They might focus on one area or several throughout the course of their career; such versatility is one advantage of being a PA. Common areas that PAs could focus on include:

Emergency Medicine: Emergency medicine PAs typically work in emergency departments and urgent care settings, handling acute medical conditions and injuries. This occupation may require additional education in emergency procedures, diagnostic imaging, and trauma management.

Orthopedics: Orthopedic PAs work with orthopedic surgeons and other healthcare professionals in treating musculoskeletal disorders and injuries. Education in orthopedics may cover topics such as fracture management, joint injections, and rehabilitation.

Oncology: Oncology PAs typically work in a team with other cancer specialists. They are involved in all aspects of care, including evaluating new patients, monitoring treatment, and following up with patients once treatment is complete.

Dermatology: PAs in dermatology practice collaborate with dermatologists to diagnose and treat various skin conditions, including skin cancer, acne, and eczema. Additional education in dermatology may involve learning about skin anatomy, dermatologic procedures, and skin cancer detection.

Cardiology: PAs in cardiology work with patients to help prevent, diagnose, and treat heart patients. Their responsibilities typically include making hospital rounds, reading Holters (heart rhythm monitors), and interpreting pacemaker data.

Other common areas include:

  • Anesthesia
  • ENT/Otolaryngology
  • Family medicine
  • General practice
  • Internal medicine
  • Neurology
  • Obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN)
  • Radiology
  • Pediatrics
  • Surgery

Nurse Practitioners

Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP): FNPs typically provide primary care services to individuals and families across the lifespan, from infants to older adults. They focus on health promotion, disease prevention, and management of acute and chronic health conditions.

Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP): PMHNPs customarily focus on mental health care, providing assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of psychiatric disorders. They work in a variety of settings, including mental health clinics, hospitals, and private practice.

Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP): PNPs generally focus on providing primary or acute care to infants, children, and adolescents. They may work in pediatric clinics, hospitals, and schools, addressing both physical and mental health concerns.

Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioners (A-GNP): A-GNPs focus their care on adults and geriatric patients and may subspecialize in either primary or acute care. Their scope of practice could include administering check-ups, conducting tests, analyzing results, prescribing medications, and developing preventive care plans. Those working in acute care may facilitate critical care procedures.

Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner: Women’s health NPs care for women of all ages,
with an emphasis on obstetric, reproductive, and gynecologic health. These professional might also have to address the psychological issues that could arise from patients who have experiences events such as sexual abuse, depression, and postpartum complications.

Work Settings

Both PAs and NPs work in a wide range of healthcare settings, from hospitals and private practices to community health centers and long-term care facilities. The specific work setting for a PA or NP may be influenced by their chosen specialty, state regulations, and the level of collaboration or supervision required in their practice. Both professions might also be found in non-clinical settings, such as educational institutions, the military, and government agencies, contributing to the diverse opportunities for career growth and development within each field.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most common employers of both PAs and NPs are offices of physicians, hospitals, and outpatient care centers.

Opportunities for Career Enhancement

Both PAs and NPs often have opportunities for career enhancement within their respective fields beyond concentrating in specific areas. They might take on leadership roles within their organizations, transition into healthcare administration, or could contribute to education and research within their professions. By pursuing these career enhancement opportunities, PAs and NPs could continue to grow and develop professionally, enhancing their skills and expertise to provide the highest quality care to their patients.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median wage for Physician Assistants was $121,530 in 2021, while Nurse Practitioners had an annual median wage of $120,680. Both professions are expected to experience significant job growth between 2021 and 2031, with 28% projected growth for PAs and 46% projected growth for NPs.


While PAs and NPs may share many similarities in their roles, responsibilities, and scope of practice, key differences exist in their educational backgrounds, collaborative relationships with physicians, and prescribing authority.

Understanding the differences between PAs and NPs could help patients make informed decisions about their healthcare provider. By taking into account each professional’s distinct skills, expertise, and scope of practice, patients may select the provider most fitting to address their individual healthcare needs.

As the demand for healthcare services continues to grow, PAs and NPs could play an increasingly important role in meeting these needs. By offering primary care similar to that of a physician, PAs and NPs may be well-positioned to address the challenges of an aging population and evolving healthcare landscape.

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Frequently Asked Questions

The main differences between PAs and NPs include their educational backgrounds, collaborative relationships with physicians, and prescribing authority. PAs are educated in the medical model and work under physician supervision, while NPs are educated in the nursing model and may practice independently or in collaboration with a physician, depending on state regulations.

Typically, both PAs and NPs have the ability to prescribe medications. However, the extent of their prescribing authority may vary by state, with some states requiring physician supervision or collaboration for PAs, and others granting NPs full, independent prescribing authority.

Both PAs and NPs may concentrate in various areas of medicine, such as family medicine, emergency medicine, pediatrics, oncology, and psychiatry. Concentrations may require additional education or certifications.

The job outlook for both PAs and NPs is very positive, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting employment growth of 28% for PAs and 46% for NPs from 2021 to 2031. This growth is due to the increasing demand for healthcare services, particularly as the population ages.

PAs and NPs are found in a variety of healthcare settings, including hospitals, private practices, urgent care centers, and community health centers. The specific work setting may depend on the professional’s concentration and personal preferences.

This is an offer for educational opportunities that may lead to employment and not an offer or guarantee of employment and that may help prepare students to meet the licensing or certification requirements of the field they choose to study. Students should check with the appropriate licensing or certifying body to make sure the program they apply to will help meet any licensing or certification requirements. Students should also consult with a representative from the school they select to learn more about career opportunities in that field. Program outcomes vary according to each institution’s specific program curriculum.

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